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Precious Heritage Carved in Stone

Do you want to see the most well-preserved ancient grotto art repository in China £¿

Visit an exhibition now showing at the National Museum of Chinese History in Beijing as China Daily reported. Then, if possible, make a visit to Dazu County in Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.

Entitled "A World Heritage£º Dazu Rock Carvings of China," the exhibition gives a fascinating insight into 50,000 precious statues carved mostly during the ninth-13th centuries.

Featuring more than 100 colour photographs, 14 original statues and 10 replica pieces, the exhibition, which runs through July 25, arouses visitors' interest in further exploring the precious area of Dazu.

Sponsored by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the Chongqing municipal government, the show came to Beijing after its Chongqing debut earlier and will travel to other Chinese cities and abroad later.

Listed among items of major World Heritage importance by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in December 1999, Dazu rock carvings are in no way less important than other big-name Chinese grottoes such as Dunhuang, Yungang and Longmen in northern China.

The rock carvings here display the development of Chinese religious beliefs and grotto art from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), with a remarkably large number of the best Buddhist statues made during the Song Dynasty.

But, for geographical and historical reasons, Dazu seems to be less well-known compared with other grottoes, according to Tong Dengjin, deputy director of the Dazu Museum of Rock Carving Art.

"This exhibition is designed to make the precious Dazu rock carvings known to more people," said Tong, who noted that there have been increasing numbers of interested visitors and researchers from home and abroad in recent years.

"What makes Dazu rock carving unique is the large amount of statues, the refined carving techniques, the diversified subjects, the rich content and the excellent conservation," said Gu Sen, an art historian from the China Art Academy in Beijing.

Today there are 75 major sites of rock carvings scattered across the mountainous county of Dazu. The most important sites are grottoes in Baodingshan, Beishan and Nanshan which are featured in three different parts of the exhibition.

Built with the supervision of monk Zhao Zhifeng from 1174-1252, the Baodingshan Grotto includes almost 10,000 statues that formed a ritual site of Tantric Buddhism, a branch of Buddhism that disappeared 400 years ago in the north.

"Many of the statues bear inscriptions that ask people to follow religious rules in their behaviours. Some statues are enlightening portraits that teach people to be good and to avoid being bad," said Zhou Tao, a researcher from the Dazu Museum of Rock Carving Art.

"Buddhist Wheel of Life," in the No 3 niche of Baodingshan, is a striking example featuring the Anicca holding the "wheel of life" in his long arms. All the living creatures are represented in the samsara wheel of life that tells the cycle of life according to Buddhist beliefs.

Another impressive statue is "Avalokitesvara with A Thousand Arms" in the No 8 niche of Baodingshan. The niche, 770 centimetres high and 1,250 centimetres wide, houses 72 statues and 126 implements with the Avalokitesvara in the centre. The 1007 arms with an eye in each palm stretch behind the Avalokitesvara to form a background of 88 square metres, creating a beautiful yet holy effect.

"Niche of Sakyamuni Entering Nirvana," in the No 11 niche of Baodingshan reminds visitors of Song Dynasty painters Ma Yuan and Xia Gui who used highly simplistic approaches in their art by simply painting a corner or a half of the picture, leaving the large empty space to imagination.

In the niche, the huge reclining Buddha only has half of his body exposed to viewers. And the statues surrounding him have only the upper parts of their bodies.

"Ancient sculptors used the method to imply the boundless size and power of Buddha, which is rarely seen in other grottoes in China," said Gu Sen.

Particularly, there are a large number of statues here that depict daily life scenes such as a woman feeding chickens, drunkards punished for their bad behaviour and herdsman with buffaloes.

Built during 892-1162, the Beishan Grotto includes 290 niches carved in a 500-metre-long rock cliff. It is acclaimed as "a gallery of Chinese Avalokitesvaras" because of the numerous, stylistic statues of Avalokitesvara.

One of the most impressive statues is "Avalokistesvara with Sun and Moon" in cave No 136 of Beishan Grotto. The statue portraits the Avalokitesvara sitting cross-legged on a square diamond seat. The plump face, smooth skin, calm gesture and the gentle waves of clothes add to the image of a tender, loving mother of mankind in her middle age.

In other sites such as Nanshan and Shizhuanshan of Dazu County, there are statues that integrate Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, representing the interplay among different religions in China during the Song period.

Previous grotto art in China seldom touched on Taoism and Confucianism, according to Zhou. He said£º "Here, Confucius, Lao Zi and the Buddha are even built together in the same niche, which is rare."

That indicates the inclusive nature and powerful vitality of Chinese culture, experts say.

"This is a fantastic show. It stimulates respect for the past. It's lucky that all these statues are well preserved," said Gazi Yasargil, a visitor from the United States. "It tells us never to forget our roots and always to keep our minds open," he said.

The majority of items on display are relatively small in size. Most of the works showcased are less than a metre in height.

The best way to experience the grandeur and beauty of Dazu rock carvings is to visit them on the spot.

-- source: Xinhua News Agency

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